While I was eagerly glancing at the bright pages of "Marmion" (for "Marmion" it was), St. John stooped to examine my drawing. His tall figure sprang erect again with a start: he said nothing. I looked up at him: he shunned my eye. I knew his thoughts well, and could read his heart plainly; at the moment I felt calmer and cooler than he: I had then temporarily the advantage of him, and I conceived an inclination to do him some good, if I could.
"With all his firmness and self-control," thought I, "he tasks himself too far: locks every feeling and pang within - expresses, confesses, imparts nothing. I am sure it would benefit him to talk a little about this sweet Rosamond, whom he thinks he ought not to marry: I will make him talk."
I said first, "Take a chair, Mr. Rivers." But he answered, as he always did, that he could not stay. "Very well," I responded, mentally, "stand if you like; but you shall not go just yet, I am determined: solitude is at least as bad for you as it is for me. I'll try if I cannot discover the secret spring of your confidence, and find an aperture in that marble breast through which I can shed one drop of the balm of sympathy."
"Is this portrait like?" I asked bluntly.
"Like! Like whom? I did not observe it closely."
"You did, Mr. Rivers."
He almost started at my sudden and strange abruptness: he looked at me astonished. "Oh, that is nothing yet," I muttered within. "I don't mean to be baffled by a little stiffness on your part; I'm prepared to go to considerable lengths." I continued, "You observed it closely and distinctly; but I have no objection to your looking at it again," and I rose and placed it in his hand.
"A well-executed picture," he said; "very soft, clear colouring; very graceful and correct drawing."
"Yes, yes; I know all that. But what of the resemblance? Who is it like?"
Mastering some hesitation, he answered, "Miss Oliver, I presume."
"Of course. And now, sir, to reward you for the accurate guess, I will promise to paint you a careful and faithful duplicate of this very picture, provided you admit that the gift would be acceptable to you. I don't wish to throw away my time and trouble on an offering you would deem worthless."
He continued to gaze at the picture: the longer he looked, the firmer he held it, the more he seemed to covet it. "It is like!" he murmured; "the eye is well managed: the colour, light, expression, are perfect. It smiles!"
"Would it comfort, or would it wound you to have a similar painting? Tell me that. When you are at Madagascar, or at the Cape, or in India, would it be a consolation to have that memento in your possession? or would the sight of it bring recollections calculated to enervate and distress?"
He now furtively raised his eyes: he glanced at me, irresolute, disturbed: he again surveyed the picture.
"That I should like to have it is certain: whether it would be judicious or wise is another question."
Since I had ascertained that Rosamond really preferred him, and that her father was not likely to oppose the match, I - less exalted in my views than St. John - had been strongly disposed in my own heart to advocate their union. It seemed to me that, should he become the possessor of Mr. Oliver's large fortune, he might do as much good with it as if he went and laid his genius out to wither, and his strength to waste, under a tropical sun. With this persuasion I now answered -
"As far as I can see, it would be wiser and more judicious if you were to take to yourself the original at once."
By this time he had sat down: he had laid the picture on the table before him, and with his brow supported on both hands, hung fondly over it. I discerned he was now neither angry nor shocked at my audacity. I saw even that to be thus frankly addressed on a subject he had deemed unapproachable - to hear it thus freely handled - was beginning to be felt by him as a new pleasure - an unhoped-for relief. Reserved people often really need the frank discussion of their sentiments and griefs more than the expansive. The sternest-seeming stoic is human after all; and to "burst" with boldness and good-will into "the silent sea" of their souls is often to confer on them the first of obligations.
"She likes you, I am sure," said I, as I stood behind his chair, "and her father respects you. Moreover, she is a sweet girl - rather thoughtless; but you would have sufficient thought for both yourself and her. You ought to marry her."
"Doesshe like me?" he asked.
"Certainly; better than she likes any one else. She talks of you continually: there is no subject she enjoys so much or touches upon so often."
"It is very pleasant to hear this," he said - "very: go on for another quarter of an hour." And he actually took out his watch and laid it upon the table to measure the time.
"But where is the use of going on," I asked, "when you are probably preparing some iron blow of contradiction, or forging a fresh chain to fetter your heart?"
"Don't imagine such hard things. Fancy me yielding and melting, as I am doing: human love rising like a freshly opened fountain in my mind and overflowing with sweet inundation all the field I have so carefully and with such labour prepared - so assiduously sown with the seeds of good intentions, of self-denying plans. And now it is deluged with a nectarous flood - the young germs swamped - delicious poison cankering them: now I see myself stretched on an ottoman in the drawing-room at Vale Hall at my bride Rosamond Oliver's feet: she is talking to me with her sweet voice - gazing down on me with those eyes your skilful hand has copied so well - smiling at me with these coral lips. She is mine - I am hers - this present life and passing world suffice to me. Hush! say nothing - my heart is full of delight - my senses are entranced - let the time I marked pass in peace."
I humoured him: the watch ticked on: he breathed fast and low: I stood silent. Amidst this hush the quartet sped; he replaced the watch, laid the picture down, rose, and stood on the hearth.